Wild berries are some of our most valuable natural resources and chances are you live just a short walk away from a patch of your very own. They can be harvested for processing into delicious jams or jellies, used fresh to flavour your favourite dishes or even be enjoyed as a snack while hiking the woods. Of course, you wouldn’t be the first to savour them as many berries served as food staples for indigenous peoples and our native wildlife depends on them to this day. So harvesting responsibly is important, in drier years when the berries are scarce I don’t pick at all, leaving what’s there for the birds and the bears and even when there is a bounty, it’s important to leave some for purposes of reseeding and keeping those wild berry patches viable. That said, here’s an overview of what’s waiting for you in our forests and waysides.
Salmonberry & Thimbleberry
Both of these are members of the Rubus or Raspberry genus and are often overlooked in regards to fruit production. The variable Salmonberry (R. spectabilis) produces delicious gold to red and even purplish fruits that are great for fresh eating or making jam. These develop from bright magenta-pink blooms which are much favoured by the hummingbirds. Some people find the flavour of Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) rather insipid and I have to agree with them. But when these crumbly red berries are processed into preserves, something special happens as this is ‘the’ best tasting jam I have ever put in my mouth. The only problem being that the berries are produced sporadically, so I usually harvest over 3-4 weeks and freeze my fruit until I have enough to make a batch of preserves.
Harvested Thimbleberries, Salmonberry blooms, The colour range of Salmonberry fruits, The colour range of Salmonberry fruits, Thimbleberry flowers, Ripening Thimbleberries.
Most of us are familiar with Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) but we actually have two additional BC species, Mahonia nervosa (Longleaf Mahonia) and M. repens (Creeping Barberry). All of these are reliably evergreen with bright yellow terminal blooms followed by edible (albeit tart) blush blue berries. The fruit makes excellent jellies and wine but we shouldn’t overlook their aesthetic qualities. The new growth of Mahonia aquifolium is a bronze colour while Mahonia nervosa makes an excellent woodland groundcover that often shifts to tones of reddish-purple during the colder winter weather.
New growth of Mahonia aquifolium, Mahonia nervosa winter colour, Mahonia repens in bloom, Mahonia repens fruit,
Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) tends to grow in open forest and definitely prefers sites with decaying wood – as evidenced by the many specimens growing out of rotting stumps. It is a highly ornamental native with a distinct wispy structure, small leaves and green new growth stems, but of course it is the bright red berries that garner our attention. The slightly tart fruits rarely ripen in large quantities but make for great fresh eating and were once used to bait hooks for fishing (mimicking a salmon egg). I think every garden should have a place for Vaccinium ovatum or Evergreen Huckleberry as it’s aesthetic appeals are many; coppery-red new growth and pale pink heather-like blooms which are followed by musky purplish-black berries that ripen in the fall but taste better after a frost. In full sun it tends to grow more compact and flush with brighter foliage, while in shade it gets tall and rangy but still produces fruit. The last species, Vaccinium membranaceum or Black Huckleberry is often found growing after forest fires and produces delicious dark fruits – unfortunately it is difficult to find in cultivation.
Red Huckleberries, Vaccinium vitis-idaea 'Koralle', Evergreen Huckleberries, Vaccinium ovatum new growth, Vaccinium ovatum new growth,
Osoberry was formerly known as Indian Plum and still goes by two Latin names, Oemleria cerasiformis and Osmaronia cerasiformis. It is a tall deciduous shrub with very early greenish-white blooms; male and female flowers are borne on separate plants and are not generally sexed in the trade, so you will have to purchase these in bloom to determine gender. The flowers are followed by plum-like drupes that ripen from yellow to peach, and finally to a dark blue. Indigenous peoples ate these in small quantities and I use them sparingly (due to natural toxins) to make a wild blueberry (90%) / Osoberry (10%) compote that I serve with salmon, as the Osoberry adds a nice black cherry aftertaste.
Osoberry in flower, Ripe Osoberries, Harvested Osoberries, Osoberry female flowers, Osoberry male flowers,
Salmon with Wild Blueberry / Osoberry compote and Allium cernuum garnish.
I learned from my grandmother that Salal berries (Gaultheria shallon) are absolutely delicious when picked in their prime. She and her dad used to snack on them while hiking the north shore in the early 1930’s before the Lion’s Gate Bridge was built and you took a ferry across from Vancouver. This evergreen subshrub has dark green foliage, white (occasionally tinted pink) heather-like blooms and purplish-blue berries that ripen in late summer. The growth habit is rather variable, as I have seen it reach heights of 10’ tall (with deer trails running through it) in open shade, while specimens planted in full sun tend to stay quite compact.
Saskatoon Berries (Amelanchier alnifolia) are found across western Canada but to be honest, the berries seem to taste much better when grown in colder regions. As a kid growing up in Saskatchewan I can remember picking a pail of Saskatoons in about a half-hour and the pie my mother baked afterwards was worth every minute. This is still a very attractive shrub with white star-like blooms that somewhat resemble Magnolia stellata, so if you are looking for a good berry shrub to plant in a mixed border, this is an excellent choice.
Another broadly dispersed species is Lingonberry or Vaccinium vitis-idaea, which is native across the northern hemisphere. This is a lovely evergreen subshrub which looks great in the foreground of any border, providing white heather-like blooms followed by tart sprays of bright red berries that taste like cranberry. It is also a good choice for containers as it is quite cold hardy (USDA zone 2) and the berry clusters dangle nicely over the edge of the pot.
Last but not least are a handful of native blueberries that inhabit our forests. Oval-Leaved Blueberry (Vaccinium ovalifolium) is the most common locally and can be found growing in the open forest around Whonnock Lake. Dwarf (V. caespitosum) and Bog Blueberry (V. uliginosum) are lower growing species while the Alaskan Blueberry (V. alaskaense) grows 5-6’ tall; all were harvested extensively by first nations.
Of course the reason I’m writing about BC berries is to remind you of our upcoming Nature Day event on Saturday March 21st; a celebration of all things wild and wonderful. We will also be introducing a brand new native fruit, the Nagoonberry (Rubus arcticus), a raspberry-like groundcover producing abundant red berries. I look forward to seeing you then.
All Images Copyright 2018 MK Lascelle